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Radio Free Iraq Interviews Iraqi Women's Activist

How will women fare in the new Iraq? RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq interviewed Iraqi women's activist Safiya al-Suhail on 13 July. Al-Suhail is the daughter of prominent Iraqi oppositionist Shaykh Talib al-Suhail, who was assassinated by Iraqi Mukhabarat agents in Lebanon in 1994. She is married to Iraqi Interim Human Rights Minister Bakhtiyar Amin. Al-Suhail is reportedly slated to assume the position of Iraqi ambassador to Egypt.

Radio Free Iraq (RFI): I would like to welcome Ms. Safiya al-Suhail, a political activist and a member of the Supreme Preparatory Committee of the Iraqi National Congress. Welcome, madam, to Radio Free Iraq.

Safiya al-Suhail: Hello. I am very happy to make this interview.

RFI: Can you talk to us about your observations and opinions on the situation of Iraqi women after your return to the country?

Al-Suhail: Yes. In fact, my observations on the current situation in the new Iraq and my impressions on the overall situation of women in Iraq are, I would say, that women have within a very short period, during a year and a few months, managed to establish women's organizations, and also to join the political parties that operate in Iraq. I can say that they have struck me -- and everyone -- with the organizational work that they have done during a very short period of time since the process of transformation, that is transformation to a democratic system, which cannot, of course, exist unless there are women -- capable, active women who demand their rights within a free and democratic Iraq.
"The women have rich experience that they have put together in Iraqi society and thus managed to break through.... They have managed to raise their voice [and say] that their [public] presence will continue and that no one, really, will stop them from obtaining their rights."

RFI: That means you do not think that Iraqi women suffer from restrictions [that have appeared] due to the strengthening of certain groups, such as Islamists, who demand that women wear the hijab or stay at home?

Al-Suhail: Well, certainly there are limitations and restrictions present everywhere, not just in Iraq. In every spot of the area surrounding Iraq, be it in Iraq or in the countries of the region, or in the Islamic countries around us, or even in Europe and America, we find that women, wherever they are active, find the necessity to demand more -- more rights.

Yes, there have been several limitations that we, activists in women's organizations or female personalities in Iraq, have had to face since my arrival up to now. These limitations will remain there until women manage, in fact, to confirm their presence and their activities in all spheres of the life in Iraq, headed by the sphere of politics.

Indeed, Iraqi women have been limited in traveling from one city to another or in the freedom of expression of their political ideas.

In the same regard, there are some forces in Iraqi society that have really tried to block Iraqi women and women's organizations. The women, however, have rich experience that they have put together with their sisters and brothers in Iraqi society and thus managed to break through this narrow frame.... They have managed to raise their voice [and say] that their [public] presence will continue and that no one, really, will stop them from obtaining their rights.

The strongest proof of this is the meeting of female activists, of Iraqi women, with Iraqi national [political] forces. With a single voice they represented all women of Iraq and also all democratic forces in Iraq, from the north to the south. We found women's organizations in Al-Diwaniyah, for instance, and in Al-Hillah, and in Al-Basrah, along with organizations in Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan, Mosul, and other regions.

The Iraqi associations stood up and said "No" when the [Iraqi] Governing Council Resolution No. 137 was issued regarding the Personal Status Law. After this, indeed, with success, and after beginning to deal with these complications, Iraqi women have managed to start an open dialogue with all forces present on the soil of Iraq, be they social or political forces, in order to negotiate how to obtain more rights for Iraqi women and consequently for the [whole] Iraqi society, as well as on the successful execution of the democratization process in Iraq, because all of that is, in fact, mutually interlinked, inseparable from each other, and if separated, the biggest loser will be Iraqi society and the democratization process in Iraq.

RFI: What are, then, the appropriate ways for raising the level of consciousness among Iraqi women so that they achieve a broader participation and a more active role in building a new Iraq? How do you see the Iraqi women who have recently reached high administrative posts in the new Iraqi cabinet, such as the posts of minister, deputy minister, or other leading positions -- what is their role? Have they tried to better protect women's rights and to grant them more rights by pushing their opinions on the new cabinet or on the new Iraqi government?

Al-Suhail: We are really very happy to have six women high up in the new government, and we think this is a great achievement. We are for the participation of women in the political process.

Anyhow, I imagine a process of convincing Iraqi society about the effectiveness of women's role by their representation within Iraqi society, in political institutions [and], God willing, in the Iraqi parliament that will come out from the general elections.

This work will not be limited only to the women in power. This joint work basically concerns civil society and especially women's organizations, political parties, [various] organizations, federations, and others, as well as universities, colleges of Islamic law, and the [whole] society in general. So it is not limited only to them [the female politicians]. Yes, they are the competent women who can support the process. The whole process, however, is not just on their shoulders. It is on the shoulders of every person who believes that, in democratic Iraq, women must be highly represented. So I believe, again, that the process is heading towards a larger representation for women.

We had previously demanded -- and we got -- the proportion of 25 percent as the minimum proportion for...the representation of women in any [decision-making] body or in the interim National Assembly, or in any [decision-making] body approved by the cabinet. We declared that we really will not accept less that 25 percent.

As for the achievement itself, this achievement was not reached only by members of the former Governing Council or by a certain Her Excellency Minister among our colleagues -- we appreciate the work of all of them. It has also been reached, in addition to the Iraqi women, by democratic forces in Iraq and especially by the women's organizations and the political parties who believe in Iraqi women's efforts and in the necessity of raising their role. I suppose it is necessary to understand that the forces for change in society are [nongovernmental] organizations.

It is the women with capabilities, especially in women's issues, who will confirm to society that they are capable, competent, and able to compete even with competent men in the highest positions of the state [administration]. That is in addition to their representation in lawmaking and also to their participation in judicial work, at the forefront of which stands the judicial settlement with the former regime and the trial with dictator Saddam Hussein.

(Translated by Petr Kubalek and Samira Balay)

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